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Front Porch: Word of advice to would-be helpers: Ask first

How much help is too much help?

I ask because I am now unquestionably in that place where I am considered geriatric or, as one of my sons puts it, “a woman of advanced glamour,” and not as altogether as I used to be. OK, I’m old. Happy to be here, as the alternative is not so appealing, at least not yet.

But as I advance through the years, I’m encountering some issues with help that kind of rubs me the wrong way. Sometimes it can undermine if not downright offend. Help needs to be offered and accepted before it’s really … well, helpful.

On an icy day two winters ago, I encountered a woman older than me standing by a car in a grocery store parking lot. It seemed she wanted to get to the store. I asked if she’d like a hand. She would. So I went and fetched a grocery cart and brought it to her. She held on to it as we walked together carefully to the store. She said that “one of the nice young men” who bagged groceries would help her back to her car. Happy ending.

The point is, I asked. I didn’t assume.

Not long ago I went to a remembrance of life memorial for the husband of a friend of mine, held at the over-55 apartment complex where my friend lives. Once inside I asked for directions to the room, and a young greeter told me to go to the second floor and pointed to the elevator at the far end of the hall.

As I turned toward the elevator, she reached out to cradle my arm with hers and proceeded to guide me down the hall. It was a long hall, and she never let go. I was pretty darn offended (thinking “what the hell?”), and about half-way there I gently told her I was OK on my own and that she could let go, which she did.

Of course she meant no offense and I know I’m way too sensitive about such things, but how about a little “may I assist you to the elevator” or “let me give you a hand” before assuming I belong in the category of infirmity in which I can’t get there on my own?

I am perfectly capable of asking for a hand when I need one, like recently when I asked a young man to help me lift my book-laden carry-on suitcase into the overhead bin on an airplane. People are kind; they’ll help. I guess what I’m asking for is that an inquiry be made prior to jumping in to render assistance (impending catastrophes and other emergency situations excluded).

There can be an unfortunate consequence to help that is imposed, a consequence that extends as well even to inquiries about well- being. One example from my own past – I had a stroke when I was in my 40s. Hospitalized for a week, did in-patient therapy for a few more, which was followed by many weeks of outpatient therapy. I had to learn to walk again, among other things, but, happily, I returned to my life and career and am still out in the world – moving at two speeds, slow and very slow, but still moving, thank you.

In those early months afterward, especially when I returned to my job, it took all I had in me to get through a workday. I’d often go out to my car at lunch, put the seat back and was asleep in seconds. That half-hour nap enabled me to get through the afternoon.

But then someone, with kind thought, I’m sure, would say “how are you,” drawing out the word “are,” giving the inquiry a level of ominous gravitas. This would frequently be followed by some statement of concern that I looked tired that day and the well-wisher hoped I was getting enough rest.

Not only was this not helpful, but it would take the wind right out of me. I’d deflate on the spot. Sure, I knew I didn’t look my best. I was climbing the steep hill of recovery, but I thought at least I was passing for close-to-normal. These kinds of observations, though well intended, can cause a stutter-step in positive forward momentum and knocks a person back a peg or two. I know this not just from my own experience but also from that of others trying to make a comeback.

And even after all these years, coming back is a lifetime process, and it still does shake my sense of OK-ness at least a little when someone snatches an object from my hand to carry it to wherever I was taking it, in an effort, I guess, to save me the strain.

Ask first, help second.

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